Amid the hoopla surrounding the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, it’s easy to forget that grunge wasn’t just about tortured men from Seattle making a brutal racket under the influence of heroin, self-loathing and Black Sabbath. It also saw the rise of a number of powerful all-female bands and frontwomen – Babes in Toyland, L7, Lunachicks, Courtney Love.
The situation today is very different. Rock bands without a “Y” chromosome have become a rarity. One of few is Warpaint, two of whose members I meet in the bar-restaurant of a hotel in Hoxton, London’s hipster republic. They are singer-guitarist Emily Kokal and drummer Stella Mozgawa, who are sitting at a banquette table drinking tea and, in Kokal’s case, eating a Hoxton-y plate of scallops and refried beans. “Oh, you’re making me a bite!” Mozgawa says as her bandmate forks some food for her to try. Somehow I can’t imagine a similar scene unfolding among Warpaint’s male counterparts.
The foursome are from Los Angeles, though they’ve spent much of the past year travelling the world touring their debut album The Fool. Raved over by critics – they’re indie darlings rather than chart stars – their musical genealogy leads back through grunge’s off-key riffs to the sprawling reveries of psychedelic rock. Live, they’re a forceful blend of hazy harmonies and dynamic rhythms; their songs don’t so much march towards a conclusion as settle into a hypnotic groove. Next weekend they’re playing a homecoming show at the Hollywood Bowl with Arctic Monkeys and TV on the Radio.
Is there something distinctively female in Warpaint’s outlook? Grunge’s women projected a confrontational form of femininity: L7’s singer notoriously riposted to mud-throwers at a rock festival by hurling her tampon at them. But Kokal prefers to underplay the fact she and her bandmates are women.
“A lot of female bands amplify that point: they put their femaleness in their name, it’s like ‘We’re a girl band, this is rare’,” she says. “We’re just a band, and it’s cool if lots of other girls are inspired to play music with their girlfriends because of us. I think more girls should make music together. I mean, why wouldn’t you? Women have been conditioned to believe, ‘I can sing but I don’t rock out like Jimi Hendrix on the guitar because I’m not a guy’ … It’s just bullshit.”
The band took a long time to get going. Formed in 2004, they released a five-song EP four years later, produced by Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist John Frusciante, whom Kokal was going out with at the time. The Fool followed last year, partly catalysed by the arrival of Mozgawa, an Australian expat, as drummer. “She’s the baby,” Kokal says, smiling at her 25-year-old colleague. The others – Kokal, fellow singer-guitarist Theresa Wayman and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg – are all about five years older.
Honed by years of rehearsal and gigging, there’s something of the jam band about them, a semi-improvisatory quality that makes it seem as if they could spin out a song forever. “You have to be really there in the present to follow those spontaneous moments,” Kokal says. It carries risks – “Sydney!” Mozgawa exclaims, remembering a show that went a bit Rick Wakeman when the temptation to fiddle with a newly purchased synthesiser proved too acute – but on the whole they carry it off magnificently.
Kokal waves aside the “dear diary shit” of the stereotypical female singer-songwriter, yet talks animatedly about the emotional openness of Warpaint’s music. “That’s a really huge tool that we can utilise,” she says. “The more that we can tap into that, when you’re really vulnerable with each other and exposed, I think we make better music from that. Though I must say a lot of great music has come from tension and hating each other.”
Rock’s dominant mode is aggression: it’s the perfect vehicle for howling and raging at the world. That’s what animated grunge-era fem-rockers. In contrast, Warpaint aspire to a kind of deep interiority. “When you hit truth in yourself, other people can acknowledge that and can connect to that,” says Kokal. She admires people who “can really open themselves out” – Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Björk. “That truthfulness is so inspiring to me.”
The Fool is full of images of water and submersion. “Water is a good representation of emotions. It’s a really good image for the swimming that we do inside ourselves. It’s not so jagged – we are made of water,” says Kokal. The last song on the record is literally about moving underwater, giving up air to be with somebody, like living in “a bubble world”. But just as I find myself contemplating this very female-seeming mode of imagery, Kokal reverts to the ironical tone more commonly associated with our hipster Hoxton surroundings. “We’re all mermaids,” she simpers in a girly voice.
Warpaint appear at the Hollywood Bowl on September 25. Their single ‘Billie Holiday’ is out on Monday in the UK